TUMBY BAY - Both the Australian and Papua New Guinean constitutions contain sections related to the separation of the state and religion.
Section 116 of the Australian constitution is very explicit. It says:
“The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”
Section 45 of the Papua New Guinean constitution is not so explicit but is interpreted in much the same way.
The sections in both constitutions are consistent with the belief that modern democracies should be secular.
This is consistent with two ideas, that religious belief should not be subject to legal or social sanctions and that religious leaders should not have authority over political decisions.
This is well and good but what happens if the leaders of a state are deeply religious individuals, as is currently the case in both Australia and Papua New Guinea?
Can we be sure that their beliefs do not influence the way they run the state?
Scott Morrison, the prime minister of Australia, is a Pentecostal Christian.
Pentecostalism was established in the United States and gained popularity in the 1970s and 80s because of its doctrine of prosperity theology. Short definition: God wants you to be rich.
In Australia, peak Pentecostalism is represented by the Hillsong Church, of which Morrison is a prominent member.
The longer definition of ‘prosperity theology’ is centred on the teaching of Christian faith as a means to enrich oneself financially and materially through ‘positive confession’ and a contribution to Christian ministries.
Promises of divine healing and prosperity are guaranteed in exchange for financial donations.
Contributing financially to the church is supposed to allow one to avoid the curses of God, the attacks of the Devil and most importantly, poverty.
James Marape, the prime minister of Papua New Guinea, is a Seventh Day Adventist. Adventism also has its origins in the United States and also practises certain fundamentalisms, albeit mixed with a very healthy social conscience.
While nowhere near as nakedly avaricious as the Pentecostalists, Adventists traditionally hold socially conservative attitudes in many areas.
These attitudes are reflected in one of the church’s basic beliefs:
“For the Spirit to recreate in us the character of our Lord we involve ourselves only in those things which will produce Christlike purity, health, and joy in our lives.”
James R Nix, reflecting on growing up in the Adventist Church said:
“Though it seems unbelievable to some, I'm thankful that when I grew up in the church I was taught not to go to the movie theatre, dance, listen to popular music, read novels, wear jewellery, play cards, bowl, play pool, or even be fascinated by professional sports.”
Both Morrison’s and Marape’s religious beliefs are extreme and didactic and it is very difficult to see them not having a major influence on the way they govern their nations.
Morrison’s worship of money has, in the neoliberal tradition, involved pursuing policies of downright cruelty.
His government’s appalling treatment of refugees and welfare recipients can all be traced back to this kind of thinking.
Marape, on the other hand, seems to be on the cusp of not only de-secularising Papua New Guinea but also pursuing strict and decidedly retrograde social and moral codes.
In Morrison’s Australia, if you are not making money or rich already you are next to worthless.
In Marape’s Papua New Guinea there will be no more singing and dancing but it’s okay to have a casino because that makes money.
In the real world, of course, people take the beliefs and antics of their leaders with a grain of salt.
Nevertheless, one has to wonder how they live with their fantasies and hypocrisies and how much of it rubs off in the way they govern.